The Pellet Store
Mountain houses have a lot of different ways to get heated. I have a furnace that heats most of the downstairs, a pellet stove for most of the upstairs, and baseboard heating in all the bedrooms and bathrooms if needed. There is a wood stove downstairs if power goes out. It wouldn’t heat the whole house, but would keep the pipes from freezing. The pellet stove is a little heat engine, so efficient we rarely have to set it higher than the lowest setting (1). Used the middle setting (3) once, when it was -20. Good stove; we stay warm.
Pellets are a “bio-mass” fuel, usually made from beetle-killed wood which is so abundant in the western pine forests now. So, burning pellets safely in a stove doesn't just help heat your home - it helps with a real problem, what to do with all those dead trees, all that fuel just waiting for a lightning spark. Companies cut and haul out those dead trees, convert them into small pellets for fuel, and we buy them in 40-lb bags. In really cold weather we go through about one bag a day. So you need to lay in a supply.
One of our local pellet stores saw an opportunity here. Let people buy a pallet of pellets at a time; with 60 bags per pallet, you can get a little break on the price per bag. They’ll keep the pellets at their store and you just come by and pick them up when you need them. They’ll even put them out front of the store so, after checking in by phone you can load them directly without having to go inside – all the better in these Covid days. What a deal, eh? What’s not to like?
Well, I really hate to say this about a store I liked, but they found two ways to cheat me on this one deal. Doubly disappointing; here are the details.
First, they tried to short me. I bought the “long ton” – 60 bags @ 40lbs/bag – on October 1st (date is important) and took 12 bags home that day leaving 48. I picked up 12 more bags in November and another 12 in December – 36 gone, 24 bags left. Got home, thinking, will I need another pallet before the season ends? I should verify with the store how many are left on the account. So I called them and asked that question. “Oh, Mr. Mitchell, we show you have 12 bags left.” Oh? When did I buy the bags? “October 1st, the helpful salesperson replied.” And when did I pick up the bags? “We show that you picked up your first 12 bags on September 29 . . . ” The helpful salesperson stopped speaking for a moment, then said, “That appears to be a mistake.” I agreed, as I had no recollection of picking up any of these bags before I had actually bought them.
The next scam was just “the old switcheroo” played out in pellets. This store features a premium pellet – a little more expensive than most but long-burning, great heat with low ash. So I bought the long ton of the premium pellet, and took home my first 12 bags. The next 12 bags, different pellets, different manufacturer, but they assured me these pellets met the same standards as the premium. Okay, I took them at their word. And they burned okay, if not quite as long or as hot. But the next 12 bags – these were generic, no-name pellets without even a manufacturer listed on the bag. And, boy, were they bad – our great little stove couldn't keep them burning at either level 1 or 2. Nothing like waking up in the middle of the night to find the house is cold because the stove went out! At the lowest 2 settings, the stove couldn’t sustain combustion. It took me a few bags to figure out that the pellets were the problem, not the stove. I had to keep the stove on level 3 just to keep the pellets hot enough to burn – and that put out way too much heat, meaning now you are opening windows to try to regulate the room temperature. Always fun in February. Plus, the amount of ash was much more than with the premium, meaning a lot of the pellet was simply going to waste. This was not what I had paid for.
So when I called to ask about the quantity, I also asked about these pellets. “Oh, we don’t have any control over that,” said the helpful salesperson. “You just have to take whatever we have on hand at the time.” Well, that’s not what you said when I bought them. I asked for my money back on the remaining (24) bags of pellets. To their credit, the store refunded the money with no questions asked. I suspect they didn’t want to make too big a deal about it.
So after all was said and done, I had time to wonder, how many people get fooled by the “short count on the long ton” scam? Or don’t complain when the pellets they get two or three months down the road aren’t as good as the ones you got at first? How many accept the excuse that “you have to take what we have” after you thought you were buying something else? My estimate is they are clearing an extra $100 or so per pallet, not a bad scam when you sell these things by the truck load.
Man, business must really be good if you don’t need – or even care about – repeat customers. Or you have enough people with enough money to throw around that they don’t even notice, or care, they’ve been cheated. But that don’t make it right.
When picking a pallet of pellets, if you pay the price for premium - get it in writing, and don't count on everyone knowing how to count.